Something about the songs of those sneaky little night peepers we call pinkletinks is both timely and timeless.
Their peeps mark a specific time each year, that window when the world begins to thaw and a promise of warmer days hangs in the air, but they span the years, too, connecting people to their youth, when they trolled through swamps with a net and a mason jar hoping to catch one of the tiny frogs.
These little creatures, which measure no more then an inch and a quarter in length, carry the hopes of an entire Island: people stand in backyards and take long walks, in hopes of hearing the songs thought to signal spring's start.
Oblivious to those who breathlessly await their calls, Vineyard pinkletinks go leisurely about their routine, dictated by changes in temperature, not people's expectations.
Usually in early March you can hear their peeps wafting from the muck: from the edges of Crystal Lake on East Chop, to the bogs of Frog Hollow near Edgartown Harbor, to the muddy perimeter of Jernegan Pond off the Edgartown-West Tisbury Road.
Their calls start softly, almost inaudibly, as the tiny male frogs literally defrost from their winter slumber and try their voices for the first time of the season. Then, driven by cresting temperatures and a soon-smoldering desire to find a mate, they reverberate a hundred times a minute, joined now by other suitors with croaky love songs.
By the first day of spring, the pinkletinks are peeping over 5,000 times every night, their scaly bodies pushing every note with almost desperate need.
Individually, their songs would be lost among the dead leaves. Together, their voices form a symphony of spring.
So their song begins to reach the ears of Vineyarders, sending many scrambling to call friends, relatives and the Vineyard Gazette to report this familiar harbinger of spring. Over the past two weeks, the Gazette received phone messages from people all over the Island who were among the first to hear the pesky peepers sing.
A woman named Lauren reported she heard pinkletinks last Monday while walking her dog in Oak Bluffs. Alex Goethals heard them off Lambert's Cove road late last week. Tracy Kouzel heard a healthy chorus near Dodger's Hole.
"They're back . . . you know what that means," reported a woman named Marie in a voice message left at the Gazette last Thursday. "Old man winter is packing up and heading out of town."
But just as groundhog Punxsutawney Phil often muffs his predictions of spring, reports of winter's demise by the pinkletinks last week were greatly exaggerated. Temperatures dipped to 26 degrees over the weekend; a minor snowstorm hit. The songs subsided.
With temperature expected to increase this weekend, the pinkletinks' song should return in force.
Augustus (Gus) Ben David, a wildlife expert and former director of Felix Neck Wildlife Sanctuary, said once the temperature hits 50 degrees, the peepers leave their winter hibernacular and instinctively return to the wetland where they were hatched. Some years when temperatures have peaked early, he said, there has been mass migration of the tiny frogs across backyards, forests and roads.
The peepers always are looking for new areas: a few years ago, a man-made pond at Felix Neck became a pinkletink haven, he said, and the frogs have been known to move into wetlands created by new homes and subdivisions.
The male frogs, the singers, usually grow to an inch long, while the females can grow to an inch and a quarter. The females lay up to 800 eggs each mating season; the eggs hatch in eight to 10 days. It takes two months for those tadpoles to turn into little pinkletinks, and by August they will be fully grown.
What about the theory that Vineyard pinkletinks have songs distinct from frogs on Nantucket or Cape Cod?
"I've never actually done a study of the subject, but there is no doubt certain populations of the same species will have different regional dialects," Mr. Ben David said. "Not as dramatic as the differences in some bird calls, but I think they have their own song."
But the way to appreciate pinkletinks, he said, is not to analyze but to enjoy: "I don't know what it is about that sound, but it really moves people. It's more than just science."
Robert H. Hughes, a former schoolteacher and longtime Oak Bluffs postmaster, said Islanders treat the tiny amphibians with near-reverence. While postmaster, he would go into the bogs, catch the frogs and put them in an aquarium at the post office. "People would just stare at the frogs," he said.
Naturalist Susan B. Whiting agreed there is something bewitching about pinkletinks. She recalled scampering through ponds as a kid looking to catch pinkletinks. Now, she said, she has a greater appreciation of the frogs.
"It gives you a little bit of relief," Ms. Whiting said. "You hear them and you know the days are getting longer and the sun is shining a little brighter."
As Gazette bird columnist, Ms. Whiting fields messages from Islanders eager to report hearing pinkletinks. "I don't think you would find that type of excitement about hearing peepers anywhere else," she said. "Most people who don't live here don't even know what a pinkletink is - you say pinkletink and they will just give you a funny look."
Which raises the question: just how did the name originate? This is the only place where spring peepers are called pinkletinks. Theories abound but nobody seems to know.
"My grandfather called them pinkletinks, that's going back a long way," Mr. Ben David said. "I really don't know."
"No clue," said Ms. Whiting. "They really don't make a pinkle-tink type of sound."
"Nobody knows," Mr. Hughes added. "I don't think we'll ever know."
The quirky moniker has often confused non-Islanders. A column in a 1926 edition of the now-defunct New York Herald Tribune pleads ignorance:
"We had to write to the editor of ‘The Vineyard Gazette' to be certain of the identity of the pinkletink... we confess that there are among the Herald Tribune readers benighted sons of the city who do not know what either peepers, or pinkletinks are," the column reads.
The earliest mention of pinkletink in the extensive Gazette archives is dated July 16, 1908: "the name pinkletink is traditional; it runs far back into the early Vineyard past. Oddly enough, the [people] who live around Baltimore have a name ... related to this; they call their frogs "tinktank."
Mr. Hughes has his own theory: "This old couple lived near a swamp, and one evening after a very bitter winter the husband heard this lovely song,
"He opened the door and said to his wife, ‘I'm tickled pink to hear the first spring peeper.' His wife wanted to be the first to inform the newspaper. However, in her haste she transposed a word and said her husband had just hear the first pinkletink," laughed Mr. Hughes said, adding, "so soon a few Vineyarders will be saying, ‘I'm tinkled pink to hear the pinkletinks."