During the Wildflower Moon it rained for the first time in almost a month.
Ovenbird, chickadee, phoebe, robin, grosbeak, cardinal, oh so many helped me greet the dawn, reaffirming how much birds appreciate a few drops of liquid silver. I soaked in a palette of lime, sage, emerald, rose, lavender, and purple that stretched across a canvas of gray. This was the day the earth turned green. S/he’d been a lady in waiting… Each year I celebrate this ‘greening ‘day whenever it falls. Ash, beech, maple, oak, willow, alder, hobblebush, cherry, apple and crab all compete to be seen at once. Every tightly budded blossom, unfurling leaf and fuzzy catkin is a source of beauty, wonder and amazement.
As always I am stunned by nature’s artistry.
Overall, dry windy weather has dominated May, this second month of ‘Becoming’. Wildfires have broken out and the threat of fire remains high. A three-day heat wave coaxed the toads into spring mating and me into my first kayak voyage to visit the source of that compelling hum.
I paddled towards the cattails listening to a deafening trill. Ah, to discover a collective love nest hidden in the reeds is a thrill. Listening and watching, all senses on high alert, I skimmed the shallows barely dipping oar to water; the ear splitting trilling ceased completely. I hugged the small cove; stilling the kayak. Within minutes, the hum began again; toads approached floating on glassy water like desiccated leaves. Only bright gold-rimmed bulbous eyes gave away amphibious intentions.
The toads eyed me one by one curious about this intruder. This keen interest of theirs surprised me because, after all, it was mating season, which only lasted about three or four days. I did note that it was mostly males that floated my way. The females, much larger than the males, if not already carrying a male on her back, seemed to prefer staying submerged. They blended so well with pond detritus that the toads were barely visible underwater. Amplexus is the term used to describe mating toads; the males develop dark horny pads on their first and second front two toes that allow them to close their limbs around the female’s abdomen. When the female lays her 4000 – 8000 eggs (!) the male releases his sperm to fertilize them externally. A spring ritual was under way.
Many females already had mates. Others, either floating or swimming, were being chased by a number of suitors. I had no idea how particular these females were! Some literally leapt out of the water to escape an unwelcome mate; others appeared to acquiesce only to throw the offending male off at the last minute! I couldn’t help laughing. The competition was fierce and I kept looking for a reason why the females chose the males they did but my observations turned up nothing.
There was so much activity occurring all around me at once that I didn’t know which way to look. Except for the few kayak ‘watchers’, Bufo Americanus was on the move. I zeroed in on a few that were humming. One male toad inflated his throat balloon and trilled for about 7 – 11 seconds before deflating his sac. He then appeared to breathe rapidly, the loose sac acting like a pump for about 10 – 20 seconds, before the toad ballooned and bellowed out the next trill. A female invariably appeared as I watched this one and then others; sometimes two females would float nearby listening to the music coming from the water. Did some tunes intrigue more than others? I certainly couldn’t tell. How did a female decide if this was the one? When a male stopped singing and swam towards her, possible last minute rejection still loomed! Conversely, sometimes one female toad would be buried under maybe 5 or 6 suitors at the same time! A pile of nubbly toads, creating a mountain in the water. I was transfixed…
Returning from my reverie to stiffening back muscles I realized I had been sitting here for more than an hour. When the heron flew low overhead I could feel the air move under the whish of his prehistoric feathers. I assumed that toads were not on the heron’s menu because of the bufotoxins. The two largest parotoid glands were located behind each toad eye. Some sources suggest herons do eat toads but not enough research has been done on this behavior to know. Hawks, raccoons and crows that predate on toads rip the glands out before ingestion. Snakes get around this problem by swallowing the toad whole (garter snakes have immunity).
Not surprisingly, toad tadpoles repel would be predators, because they also carry the same poison in their skin. Toad tadpoles also band together in groups and engage in kin recognition.
The two loons approached so close I was able to discern red eyes only visible during breeding season. A sleek muskrat swam by about a foot away, apparently on his way to deeper water where a passing mallard couples’ feathers shone iridescent in the sun. Toads began more humming beneath the boat. A vireo sang, hidden completely from sight in a thick tangle of berry bushes. Redwings flashed by, flames on the wing. Just ahead of me sitting on a floating log I spied two orange streaked painted turtles sunning themselves on emerald moss…
I was hot! Time to go.
As I maneuvered the kayak out of the reeds I thanked the toads for allowing me a glimpse into their world while thinking about the strings of toad eggs that I would be collecting in a day or two to raise at home. All amphibians are critically threatened species; they are our ‘canaries’ alerting us to grave danger. The polluted air and water that are killing them are a threat to us as well.
One my way back to the dock I saw two huge – 24 – 30 inch bass swimming alongside the boat. I stopped by the beaver islands but noted that there had been no activity this spring that I could detect. It was too early in the season for pitcher plants and orchids to appear out of the sphagnum, but pearl – white blueberry bells were being pollinated by enthusiastic bumblebees. I wondered where the beavers had gone.
As I pulled the kayak out of the water I was already imagining the tiny toads that would be populating my wild unkempt garden in August after the eggs hatched (2 -12 days) and tadpoles matured in my pond …For now I would provide them with algae and bits of raw spinach until the herbivores grew lungs and legs turning into carnivorous terrestrial beings that ate thousands of insects a day.For that reason alone everyone should raise a multitude of toads!