Toad-ally Cool

Toad-ally Cool

Photo courtesy Wikimedia Commons

Amphibians are bellwethers for us–they let us know what conditions are like in our wetlands. Worldwide, they don’t seem to be faring well. According to Amphibiaweb, in the last 20 years or so, 168 amphibian species have gone extinct–you know, disappeared forever. Almost 1/3 of amphibians are threatened with disappearing the world over. Fatal fungi and habitat destruction seem to be the gravest threats.

With the possible exception of the Egyptians who encountered the Hebrew prophet, Moses, most people like amphibians. 07EXODUS3-master675-v2

Depending upon where you live you might have frogs and/or toads, salamanders, or even caecilians as neighbors.

The one thing that ties all amphibians together (OK, perhaps there is more than one thing) is their double life: exisiting on land and water.

Some of them, like caecilians, which includes sirens, spend their entire lives in water. Others, like toads and some salamanders, use aquatic habitat primarily for breeding. Frogs, probably the most recognized amphibian, can be found on land and in the water throughout their adult life-span.

I’m going to focus on toads for this post because…they are found in my neighborhood–my backyard even.

Michigan has two species of toad: the Eastern American toad (‘Merica!), Bufo americanus, and the Fowler’s toad, Bufo woodhousiifowleri. The latter is found along the western third of the lower peninsula, whereas the Eastern American is distributed everywhere, including the U.P. (Upper Peninsula). It’s also found in eastern Canada, and of course, the eastern U.S.

Fowler’s toad (courtesy of Wikimedia Commons)

Eastern American toad distribution

Fowler’s toad distribution

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Toads, if you didn’t know, have dry skin and can be gray, brown, reddish-brown, tan, or even olive. Their backs have dark spots, and at times dark spotting is on the throat and belly, but usually that area is whitish or yellowish. Adults are generally anywhere from two to four inches in length–though I saw a giant toad in Canada once (perhaps my tiny boy eyes made the beast appear larger?).

Probably the toad’s signature identifier is the appearance of warts along its back and head. Their short legs, though the hind ones are longer than the front, give them a squat look. Combine squat and warty and you get Sqwarty. That sums up a toad–Sqwarty. Ranging in length from two to over four inches, toads are smaller than many of their frog cousins. That makes them easy to step on, unfortunately.

What’s for Dinner?

Toads won’t eat your crops. They are insectivores and expand their palate to include spiders and earthworms. Supposedly, they can consume 26 insects a day for a total of 3,200 from May to August. Not quite as prolific insect devourers as bats, they still provide ecosystem services pro bono.

Where to Look

     If you look in open woodlands and the edges as well, you might find a toad–or multiple ones. If you look in meadows, marshes, lake shores, and even your backyard, you might find a toad.

During hot, dry periods and during winter they are buried in moist soil or plant debris. How did they get there? Toads can dig holes with their hind feet.

Toad Love?

The season of love for toads is in April or May (it began in my neighborhood on April 9th of this year) when they begin moving to wetlands.

That irresistible sound that boy toads make is a high, sharp trill that can last up to 30 seconds, which comes from an inflated throat sac.

Toad sex is called, sexily enough, amplexus. The male clasps the female from behind her front legs and then fertilizes anywhere from 2,000 to 20,000 eggs which emerge from her body in long, gelatinous strings that attach to submerged rocks, plants, twigs, hot tubs, whatever.

Depending on the water temperature, tadpoles will hatch 3-14 days later. The pre-toads eat algae, plant material, and the dead, but not mosquito larvae unfortunately. In about 6-10 weeks they transform into toadlets and take about 2-3 years to reach their massive 2-4+ inch adult size.

Pre-toads…

…to toadlet.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Please Don’t Eat the Toads

A toad’s coloring and texture help camouflage it in it’s surroundings. Failing that, they can secrete an icky substance from their back warts which can be toxic to small mammals if ingested. Plan C  is to inflate with air to prevent something swallowing the toad. And if you still insist on picking them up, they’ll probably urinate in your hand.

 

Did You Know…?

  • Toads are found on all continents except Antarctica
  • A group of toads (what’s the minimum number? I. Don’t. Know.) is called a knot
  • They have no teeth
  • According to my sources they are nocturnal, but I’ve found plenty of toads in the daytime. The mating call does tend to start around dusk, however.
  • The lucky ones can live for 20-40 years
  • While you can find them near water when it isn’t mating season, they’ll generally be found in drier areas.

Toads have made it into 20th Century pop culture:

A series of stories for early readers–something from my childhood.

I didn’t read this as a child, but I did read it to my son.

Everything gets appropriated by Disney!

  • Have you ever held a toad in your hand? Aside from the small puddle of urine, you’ll also notice the cool, clammy, thin skin. It’s like holding a small pouch of bones.

 

 

 

 

 

Do what you can to encourage toads to visit your backyard. Your children will thank you.

 

 

 

 

Advertisements
Push and Pull

Push and Pull

(This post was actually finished two weeks ago, but due to a failing home computer I didn’t save it like I should and I had to reconstruct the whole thing.  Apologies for missing about a month-and-a-half.)

The study of geography talks about the reasons that people immigrate and emigrate (which by the way means to come into another country or leave one’s home country, respectively), the push and pull factors.  These include:

  • famine
  • war (unfortunately all too present right now)
  • debt
  • opportunity
  • running from the past

Animals have a more limited scope when they migrate.  And the strict definition for migrate includes the idea of a return.  Animals only permanently move out if habitat is destroyed or they are extirpated.

What you probably picture when you think of "migration."  (Courtesy Wikimedia Commons)

What you probably picture when you think of “migration.” (Courtesy Wikimedia Commons)

Here in Michigan we think of migration in primarily terms of north and south–Canada geese, mallard ducks, songbirds, sandhill cranes, and monarchs all head for sunnier climes beginning in September.  But migration can happen in an east to west (or vice versa) cycle, up and down mountains, and even vertical movement through the water column.

Photo courtesy Nature Next Door

Photo courtesy Nature Next Door

All kinds of animals migrate (heck, even mold migrates!) from zooplankton to blue whales.

 

Migration for them is an “adaptive response to seasonal or geographic variation of resources.”  Or sometimes to breed.  The daylight length, temperature, or food sources have changed and so animals move on.

Those triggers–light, hormones, water currents–all give the signal to “pack up and head out.”  Cooler temperatures signal birds to migrate, for instance.

So, how do they do it?  Migrate, I mean.  Animals use topography, polarized light patterns bouncing off of airborne particles (which happens even on cloudy days), the stars, and olfactory and magnetic cues.  Rivers and coastlines are particularly helpful.  The most southern point in Canada (well, nearby Pelee Island is officially the southernmost point) is a sandy peninsula known as Point Pelee.  This helps guide birds across Lake Erie.  Why wouldn’t it?  It’s a giant directional signal pointing south.

How can you not know what direction to go?

How can you not know what direction to go? Photo courtesy Brian Kirchner

 

 

 

Some animals forage along the way, while others have gorged themselves and built up fat stores (hyperphagia) much like those who stay and hibernate.

Southeast Michigan sees the beginning of migration in August and continues even to this present point as I witnessed a flock of Canada geese pass over me this morning.  The little brown bats we observe wheeling the evening summer sky move from their tree roosts to caves for the winter.  The trout and salmon are migrating for breeding purposes (though their numbers are limited in SE Michigan).  Hummingbirds, sandhill cranes, and all kinds of warblers have exited the confines of the state. Out west, the elk migrate, and in northern Michigan there is a herd or four, but I don’t know that they migrate.

Before finishing this article let me include some random migration facts:

  • Humpback whales complete the longest mammal migration of up to 8,500 km each way.
  • Monarch butterflies, of course, have the longest insect migration from Canada and the northern US to California and Mexico in the fall–up to 4,750 km.

    Photo courtesy Tamya Hall

    Photo courtesy Tamya Hall

  • Rattlesnakes(!) in Alberta, Canada migrate to find dens for hibernation just slightly south of their summer grounds

As annoying as the Canada goose has become, it’s still thrilling to hear the feathery thump when they fly in their characteristic V-shaped flocks closer to the earth on the way to wherever they stay.  Occasionally, the mallards in smaller groups beat their whistling wings to find food further south.  The great blue herons will stick around, surprisingly, as long as open water exists.

So what migrates from your neighborhood?  Or perhaps you live in a winter destination?  What “new” species are just showing up?  Get outside and look around.

 

 

Sound + Vision of Spring

Sound + Vision of Spring

T. S. Eliot wrote in The Wasteland, that “April is the cruellest month, breeding/ Lilacs out of the dead land, mixing/ Memory and desire, stirring/ Dull roots with spring rain.”

T.S. Eliot "Spring foe"?

T.S. Eliot “Spring foe”?

Obviously, never having visited Michigan (he was born and raised in St. Louis, MO) he continues, “Winter kept us warm, covering/ Earth in forgetful snow, feeding/ A little life with dried tubers.”  He’s been dead for 50 years and didn’t have to contend with this year’s February (see last month’s post).

That’s all behind us now, at least in this corner of Michigan and much of the Midwest.  Plants are beginning to sprout, maple syrup season is over, and even the occasional insect can be spotted.

Usually people in Michigan identify the American robin (turdus migratorius–what an unfortunate appellation)

Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

with the arrival of spring.  Not only does Michigan lose points for making our state bird one that Wisconsin and Connecticut also claim (the northern cardinal appears to be the most popular state bird), but not all robins leave the state in the fall.  Some stay around, somehow managing to find food through the winter.

There has been a movement over the last few decades to make the Kirtland’s Warbler (Setophaga kirtlandii), a bird that only breeds in northern lower Michigan, the state bird, but too many people complain that politicians ought to find better things to do with their time than designate state animals, rocks, and books.

Kirtland's warbler image courtesy of Creative Commons

Kirtland’s warbler image courtesy of Creative Commons

So, for now, we’re stuck with the ordinary robin.

For me, though, the harbinger of spring is the red-winged blackbird (Agelaius phoeniceus).  Yes, it’s a common enough sight and sound in wetlands (even saltwater marshes) around the country, but they aren’t found in Michigan in winter.

Unlike the lazy robin, they hightail it south for open water and abundant food.  Well, not too far south, some are found year round in Ohio.

Some of the more sophisticated birds like to winter in Mexico.  The ones who can afford it, do, I suppose.

If you’re not sure what one looks like, all you need to do to spot the male is to look for a black bird, not quite as large as a blue jay, but certainly larger than a sparrow.  OK, I guess they are robin-sized.

But this isn’t one:

This non-native (image) is courtesy of Creative Commons and Torange.US

Image courtesy of Creative Commons and Torange.US

This bastard The starling isn’t even native to North America, thanks to a Shakespeare lover it was introduced in Central Park in New York in the 19th century and now they gobble up native birds’ food.

This black bird is also not red-winged, but it is native:

Grackle image courtesy of Ironphoenix.org

Grackle image courtesy of Ironphoenix.org

The common grackle is larger than the red-winged blackbird and is widespread as well.

 

 

The red-winged blackbird is as it’s name claims, a black bird with a scarlet and yellow shoulder patch on it’s wings.  That’s the male, anyway.  The female is brown and has field markings similar to a song sparrow.

Besides the instant sunshine the bird brings with its appearance, is the varied musical call the male sings.

Watch this beautifully shot short video by Lang Elliot:

I don’t know about you, but that bird’s call is magical to me and instantly brings spring to mind.

Lastly, spring is also here when the ground is brown, bare, and soggy, yet it smells of “the dearest freshness deep down things” to quote my favorite Jesuit poet.  There’s that earthy smell that is heaved into my nostrils.  And it’s not a bad smell at all.

I can throw the windows open, blow out winter’s dust, and thrill to the call of boy blackbirds and smell the fecund earth.

What’s spring like in your neighborhood?

Aqua + Terra=Wetlands

Fortuitously, I spotted on my calendar that May is American Wetlands Month (by the decree of somebody).  This is also a time of year, when in the northern climes at least, there are more wetlands present than later in the year.

Snow melt and spring rains create a soggy landscape for us.

Some areas tend to be wetter than others, some permanently so.  In fact, for a bit of land to be considered a wetland it must have standing water for at least seven consecutive days.  That means that that low spot on your driveway that holds water for three days after a rainstorm doesn’t count.

However, the “pond” down the street that is dry and cracked by July does.

 

In the Midwest, wetlands contain the most biodiversity over any other type of ecosystem.  Mammals like beavers, muskrats, and water shrews tend to be year-round residents.  Birds of all feathers rest, feed, nest, and breed in wetlands.  Amphibians and reptiles spend their time slithering, sunning, swimming, and jumping in the water, on logs and rocks, and nearby land.  Fish are…well, fish are where fish should be.  Countless invertebrates dwell below the water’s surface and on the plants and land and in the sky above.  Lastly, many specialized plant species can only be found in wetlands.

Lake Huron pitcher plants

Wetlands serve a purpose beyond their beauty.  They provide what is known as ecosystem services.  In a crass so-called economic age, we sometimes have to assign a dollar value on the things that nature provides for free.

Wetlands purify and filter water.  They can trap and neutralize something as disgusting as sewage waste and can decompose toxic substances, too.

As was seen with Hurricane Katrina (and others) in the American South, wetlands provide a buffer against flooding and erosion.  They hold water during drier times as well.

Wetland plants cycle nutrients through the ecosystem and provide food and shelter to all kinds of creatures.  Additionally, they add oxygen and are part of the flood control built in to wetlands.

Lastly, wetlands provide numerous recreational activities from hunting and fishing to photography, canoeing and kayaking, hiking, and simply enjoying the space.

According to a late 2013 AP article,

The eight-state Great Lakes region — extending from western New York to eastern Minnesota– was the only section of the U.S. where coastal wetland acreage increased during a five-year period when scientists took extensive measurements with satellites and field photography.

The gain was modest — 13,610 acres, an area not quite as large as the New York City borough of Manhattan. Yet it happened as the rest of the nation’s coastal wetlands shrank by 360,720 acres. The loss amounted to less than 1 percent of the U.S. total, but continued a longtime negative trend.

Historically, 75% of wetland loss in Michigan can be attributed to agriculture.  Though nationwide, industry, commercial and residential development have contributed to their drainage and disappearance.

Michigan had an estimated 11 million acres of wetlands prior to European/American settlement.  Now we’re down to about 3 million.  That’s not a few dead frogs.

Wetlands can be classified into five kinds (these are freshwater only–you salties have some different kinds particular to you).

IMG_0728

Not a Michigan wetland.

Marshes are essentially flooded grasslands with perhaps a few trees per acre.  They contain standing water anywhere from an inch to several feet.  So, find out the depth before you go trudging out there.

Swamps are the woodier cousins of marshes as they are flooded woodlands with many more trees per acre.  Up until the last ten years I didn’t know the difference between swamps and marshes and used the terms interchangeably.  You can no longer use ignorance as your excuse.

Bogs are closed systems where rainfall is the only “new” water that enters.  Bogs are highly acidic (unlike fens, which are alkaline).  Sometimes they have open water and others are covered with saturated peaty soil topped with a lovely layer of sphagnum moss.  If you want to find carnivorous plants, bogs are the place to be.

Don't try this without a net

Don’t try this without a net

Vernal ponds, most likely there’s one in your neighborhood if you have some green space are temporary and almost always dry by high summer.  If you look carefully you might find fairy shrimp flitting around in the water or salamanders lurking nearby.

Grand Ledge, MI

Vernal pond, Grand Ledge, MI

The Great Lake states also have coastal wetlands, too.

Given the copious, emergent vegetation, wetlands can be difficult to explore at times.  But if you can find a clearing you should be able to observe fish, crustaceans, amphibians and reptiles, birds, mammals, and terrestrial and aquatic insects.  It’s worth the effort.  Next to Atlantic tidal pools, Great Lakes wetlands are my favorite ecosystems.

Obviously, get outside, explore your wetlands.  They might not be there come July.

“…Snow on snow…”

Yesterday was the winter solstice, so that means here in the northern hemisphere daylight will eke out a tiny bit more time everyday. Perhaps paradoxically, that also means that the temperatures will stay lower and snow will begin to accumulate in the northern climes if it hasn’t already.
Southeast Michigan has had some cold days and nights and about four inches of snow in my neighborhood, though it’s down to about one on the ground due to the rain from the last two days.
This month’s challenge is about solid water aka snow. If you live far enough north (or south) you should see some falling during the winter months.
Water in itself is a fascinating substance. When H2o molecules bond, they form 105 degree bonds which allows for quite a bit of molecular space. What does that mean? Simply put, solid water is less dense than liquid water–hence ice floats. Check it out the next time you put ice in your beverage.
Turkey(s) in the snowFor snow to form you need two things: atmospheric moisture and temperatures close to freezing. I guess some people have said that it can be too cold to snow, but that’s nonsense. As long as there’s enough moisture in the air, snow can form.
Most snowflakes are less than a 1/2″ across but some can be as large as two inches (I always called the larger, fluffier flakes “goose feathers”).
Snow is white because the way that the ice crystals form there is a relatively large amount of surface area to reflect sunlight and visible sunlight is white. However, in glaciers, blue is a prominent color, and in deep snow too.
When you go outside to explore the snow this month pay attention to your voice and other sounds. Snow absorbs sound, so your backyard and neighborhood will have a different aural quality if enough snow falls.
As I’m reading The Long Winter by Laura Ingalls Wilder to my eleven-year-old daughter currently, I learned that a blizzard, which engulfed the town the Ingalls lived in, by definition is a heavy, blowing snowfall that lasts for at least three hours. The Ingalls and neighbors endured three days of blizzard  sometime in the late 19th century.

White pine seedling in snow

White pine seedling in snow

If, in your travels in the winter, you happen to get stranded or lost, dig yourself a hole in the snow. Snow happens to be a good insulator and the layer closest to the ground is usually around 32 degrees, which is still cold, but it could be warmer than the 25, 18, or 3 degrees above the snow pack.
Another wonderful thing about winter is the ease in tracking animals. The nature of snow allows for evidence of birds and mammals to be left behind for you to follow or attempt to investigate what kinds have been around.4302872146_ee4d9cc484
So, ignore the cold (safely), play in the snow. Track animals, build a snow cave, pack a snowball. Go outside.

Tree Rat, Acrobat

Some hunters might say that the white-tailed deer is autumn’s animal icon. Others, perhaps the Canada goose, maybe the bears that begin to gorge for a long winter’s nap, but I say the ubiquitous tree squirrel is the keystone of autumn.
Who else scurries around creating middens or caches of pine cones (red squirrel) or buries nuts of all kinds (gray squirrel, fox squirrel) around your yard, your neighbor’s yard, and someone else’s two blocks over?
The tree squirrel has to be one of those animals that are so common they become invisible—except when we’re swerving to avoid crushing them under our car tires. They are found all over the world though not in Australia, Madagascar, and Antarctica.
These rodents have earned the ire of people because of their mildly destructive habits in tearing up gardens, stripping tree bark, and raiding bird feeders, and in my case, chewing up my bike seat after a red squirrel was trapped in my shed for two days.
They’ve earned many names here in North America: tree rat, puck-o’-the-pines, fairy diddle, and bannertail among others. The Ojibwa people (who resided (still do actually) in Michigan called them kitchi-adjidamo meaning big squirrel. The genus Sciurus comes from Greek and it means shadow tail.
Here in the U.S. the biggest is the fox squirrel and the smallest is the southern flying squirrel. While Pakistan holds the record for the largest existing species: the woolly flying squirrel.
Michigan is home to three tree squirrel species, the fox Sciuris niger (photo courtesy of wikimedia commons), Sciurus_niger_(on_fence)the gray (which can also have black fur) S. carolinensis, 6576b69f35c2d7137efd49accc70-grandeand the smallest of the three, the red, Tamiasciuris hudsonicus.red-squirrel-2 In addition, we have the southern flying squirrel, and farther north, the northern flying squirrel, fortuitously enough.
Tree squirrels can see in color and have a very strong sense of smell, which scientists previously thought that meant they could locate sources of cached food, but that seems to not be the case.
There is more than one coloring pattern for all North American species which confused the early naturalists.
All tree squirrels (at least in North America) share the following characteristics:
• They have whiskers (referred to as vibrissae) used to help them in dark nests and tree cavities
• Their front feet have four digits and the rear five
• While observing squirrels climbing, pay attention to their rear paws; they can turn their ankles a cringe-inducing 180° to allow for hanging, eating, and speedy vertical descent from a tree.
• The characteristic bushy tail serves as shade, protection from the elements, balance, and communication
• Different squirrels have different diets, but all overlap somewhere in the following: nuts, acorns, pine cones, insects, buds, berries, fungi, nestling birds, bird eggs, and corn
Tree squirrels have an aesthetic appeal, but their newborns do not. Blind, hairless, and with ear flaps closed, they are rather ugly (yes, it’s a judgment) until the fur comes in. They are born in litters of one to five with two to four being the average. The gestation period is 44 days for gray squirrels and 44-45 for foxes.
Squirrel romance is limited to the brief conjugal encounter as there is no bonding between parents.
Tree squirrels tend to live about 4-5 years, but cars (as many of us can testify) tend to shorten that length considerably. Disease and starvation beat out automobiles as vehicles (heh!) for death. Severe cold weather is handy at culling, too.

Random squirrel facts
• They can run 16.7 mph on flat ground
• They can swim, dog-paddle style, for short distances
• They are “seed predators” (cue scary music).
• They don’t hibernate, if you hadn’t noticed
• They are diurnal. When was the last time you saw a squirrel traipsing around at night?

I have alternately loved and hated squirrels. I used to hand feed a red squirrel at my maternal grandparent’s island home in Canada as a child. I also remember being about 14 years old and sneaking up behind a squirrel next to a silver maple in the front yard of my childhood home and pulling its tail.
I also remember a few times of cartoonishly chasing squirrels off of my backyard bird feeder before I invested in a baffle.
So, go out in the brisk weather, observe these familiar rodents. Pay attention to the arched pattern the body and tail of the fox squirrel as it hops across your lawn. Can you spot the red squirrel scurry atop your power lines to a tree? Are there more black varieties of gray squirrels than gray around your home?
Go out, come back and report.

I used a couple of good resources for this post. North American Tree Squirrels by Michael A. Steele and John L. Koprowski wrote a more “sciencey” book, but it is still readable by the educated reader. Squirrels: A Wildlife Handbook by Kim Long is lighter on the science and covers much of the folklore about squirrels. Together, you would probably have all the knowledge you need about squirrels aside from your own observations.