Starting about mid-May when days and evenings began to warm up we’d hear off tune, extended croaking in damp spots around the yard, high in the trees, tucked into the woodpile and even on the side of the house. A few days later, high-pitched off-key trills burst from the little pond outside our bedroom window. It’s spring in Iowa and the tree frogs and toads are loving the moisture and warmth as they initiate their spring serenade.
Hyla Versicolor, or eastern Grey Treefrog, are fascinating amphibians. These diminutive creatures – about 2 and a half incles long – can change their rough, mottled skin within moments to better blend into their environment. Their large toe pads help them climb most surfaces, including buildings. Although they prefer woods’ edges, they also are found clinging to houses and even light posts! Once we spotted one clinging to our window. After mating, they tend to wander off into the forests to feed.
In winter they shelter under tree bark or leaves. A fabulous adaptation of changing glycerin to glucose that circulates through their organs prevents ice crystals from forming. Although remaining water freezes, they do not die. Come spring they thaw out to serenade us again.
Toads need water to mate.
The other night caller is the American Toad. Come dusk through the wee night hours, they sing merrily and mightily. They wander to the water to mate and reproduce, then they hop off to eat insects. They are especially helpful in gardens. Some of our friends even make toad habitats for them! Two protections protect these slow moving amphibians. A gland near their eyes secrets a nasty liquid that repels predators. This gland does NOT cause warts. That is just a silly story people tell kids for some reason. And they pee. When picking them up grasp them gently around the middle and hold them away from your body so you don’t get sprayed. Toadlets hatch by the hundreds a few weeks into summer and somehow make their way to safety. We hope you enjoy these late spring singers.
For many years Rich wrote a nature column for the Cedar Rapids GAZETTE about little known aspects of natural history common in suburbia. He was amazed when more people responded to a column on toads than anything else he had written. People like toads. Some readers called him to talk about “their” toad that lives in the garden or a damp corner in the garage. They wondered what treats they could give “their” toad.
Toads Range Far and Wide
Toads herald spring’s arrival with lusty evening trilling, usually in May. Common and intriguing, they enjoy living in suburban yards as well as woodlands and wetlands.
Many toad species inhabit the world but the Eastern Toad is most common in the United States. It ranges from about Nebraska east to the Atlantic and from southern states north to nearly Hudson’s Bay in Canada.
Where do Toads Live?
Both toads and frogs are amphibians. (The bloopers at the end of this video are fun to watch! Shows what it takes to put together even one short educational video!)
Toads, however, spend much of their lives away from water. A damp shady place to live and plenty of insects and other invertebrates to eat suits their needs. Toads often spend the day hiding in damp garages, under rotting logs, and in secluded garden spots. Come evening they hop around seeking tasty bug meals.
As amphibians toads need standing water to reproduce. Each spring toads hop to ponds, wet road ditches, and big puddles to serenade the night with their loud trilling. Females lay two strings of eggs in the water that hatch into tadpoles within two weeks. The warmer the weather the faster the eggs hatch. Toad tadpoles are easy to recognize. They are tiny, black, and have bodies much larger than their thin tail. Often hundreds swarm in a small pool. In less than two months they change into mini toads that hop far and wide seeking a place to live. They’ll eventually grow to about three inches long.
Toads sing loudly day and night.
Toads need water to mate.
Who Eats Toads?
Although many animals enjoy a frog meal, few eat toads. When bothered toads often emit a foul-tasting liquid that makes a hungry dog or raccoon immediately drop the animal unhurt. Probably their main predator is the hognose snake, which relishes a toad meal.
Caring for “Your” Toad
Most people like toads and many gardeners create damp quiet places in their gardens for them to take shelter during the day and forage for pesky insects come nightfall. As for a toad treat, well, they really don’t need one but they might like to snack on a few mealworms or earthworms.
Our blog on snakes in the yard struck a note! People loved it and some shared their “rattler” experiences. But, for most of us, snakes are helpful in the yard and we can help them, too, as these readers did. From Jackie and Peter Hull in Bedford, Virginia, a story about how they rescued a black snake.
“Several years back to protect my strawberries from birds we tucked some netting around the raised bed of strawberries which seemed like a good idea at the time. It allowed the bees and butterflies to pollinate the blossoms, but kept out critters or so we thought. One morning I was out strolling through the raised beds noting what was coming along. Much to my dismay I spotted a huge shiny black snake had become entangled in the netting. It was trying to retreat or move forward but every move just made his situation worse.
“A black snake is a godsend to gardeners and their gardens, so to have this garden friend tangled and suffering was not so good. I scurried to the house letting my husband and tough ex-Marine, Peter, know that I needed his help in the garden immediately because a black snake was in distress. I grabbed some scissors while Peter put on a long sleeved shirt, pants and leather gloves. We met by the strawberries. Peter was not in the least bit interested in untangling this creature, but I was. So I began snipping the plastic strands from around the snake’s body. Snip by snip I finally released the snake who had spent a very long time struggling to become free. He didn’t make an aggressive move so we picked him up and put him across the lane near the shrubs.
“This scenario repeated itself the following year until an idea formulated in my head. I thought: “Let’s build a screen like a window screen and place it on top of the raised bed.” We measured and ruminated about the size since we needed it to be tall enough for the plants to grow their berries. This was a complete success as the following spring we attached this contraption to the top. The bees and butterflies were able to do their work, but the birds, mice and black snake never could get in.
“The black snake is still around but not in the strawberries. Peter said he saw him a few weeks back slithering up the gravel driveway. I’m just glad he doesn’t get tangled in netting anymore.”
Every once in a while, when we’re out in our summery yard enjoying birds and flowers, we encounter a snake. We’ve been around snakes for decades and know there are no venomous species in our area but we’re still startled when one slithers away.
Managing a yard to attract a diversity of wildlife sometimes encourages snakes to move in along with birds and butterflies. Usually the snakes that visit yards are non-venomous species merely looking for a place to live and something for dinner. Most common are garter snakes that mostly eat insects. We’ve written about garter snakes on Winding Pathways before. Sometimes we spot tiny brown snakes no bigger than a nightcrawler. They also eat worms and bugs. Once in a while we see a beautifully colored and patterned fox snake. They probably seek tasty white footed mice or maybe a chipmunk. And lots of folks combat the undermining work of chipmunks.
Some backyard snakes can be downright startling. A few years ago, we spotted a husky snake that held its ground. It hissed loudly and was not willing to flee. Although looked threatening, we knew it was just an act. It was a hog nosed snake that sometimes flattens its head like a cobra and hisses when a human approach. It’s a trick that works. Most people quickly back off from this imposing act. This snake loves eating toads and frogs but won’t bite people.
There’s an irony about snakes. Many homeowners simply hate chipmunks. Yet they’ll kill any snake they find. Snakes are one of the best of all chipmunk predators and having a few around keeps the population of the small mammals in check.
Snakes range throughout the continental United States. Most species are non-venomous and even in places where venomous snakes live they generally avoid suburban and urban neighborhoods. It’s good to be cautious but be curious instead of terrified. When a snake is spotted give it plenty of space and try to identify it.
Binoculars that focus closely is a help in observation. And you can keep your distance. Concentrate on the shape of the head and tail, the color(s) and scale patterns and type of habitat. Google a guide to snakes of (name your state) for more information. The snake is likely harmless and fascinating. If it is not, then you might have to have it destroyed.
This is the case in some parts of the country. We have friends who live in the breaks of central Idaho where rattlers periodically come in. So, they are very aware as they move around the garden and yard.
We consider the snakes we occasionally find in our Winding Pathways yard as interesting and welcome as the goldfinches and cardinals that visit our feeders. We’ve even placed a few hollow logs at the edge of the yard so they have a a safe place to hide. They also enjoy a rock wall between our house and a patch of trees.
If we’re not sure what species of snake we’ve discovered we often go to the Internet. Many state universities have Websites that help people identify the snake species that live there. Iowa has a great site. So, does Florida, and an interesting one comes from Nebraska. Many field guide books are also on the market that feature color photos and information about snake species.
Wildlife Specialist Rebecca Christoffel of Iowa State University Extension reminds us that “…snakes eat worms, slugs, bugs and other small animals such as frogs or fish. Snakes don’t do any damage to buildings because they don’t dig their own holes, instead using holes other animals have made.” She has a few simple tips to remove a snake from areas of the yard where homeowners do not want them. If a snake is found in an undesirable place, like a garage or shed, Christoffel said a broom and a trash barrel can easily be used to remove it. Lay the trash barrel on its side, and with a broom (soft plastic bristles or straw), “sweep” the snake into the garbage barrel, gently forcing it down to the bottom of the barrel. The barrel, and snake, can then be taken to another area of the property and the snake released out of harm’s way.” (From ISU website)
Christoffel added, “An alternative solution is to learn to accept having the snakes around and appreciating the valuable ecosystem services they provide,” Christoffel added. “Snakes are excellent rodent and insect control.”
Find a snake in the yard? You may be startled. Remember, be cautious and curious. It’s likely a desirable and beautiful species that helps keep a balance of wildlife. After all, snakes, too, have a place in the eco-system.
Almost all substances contract as they get colder. There’s one notable exception and it enables life.
Ice expands and floats
As water cools, it gets denser. As the temperature continues to drop, cold surface water sinks to the bottom. When the lake’s surface water reaches 39 degrees Fahrenheit something amazing happens. As weather continues to get colder it expands. When it turns to ice it expands even more! That’s why ice floats. If it didn’t, ponds and lakes would completely freeze and nothing could live in a solid block of ice.
Ice floating on a lake moderates the temperature of the water beneath it. Although the air temperature may be below zero above the ice the water beneath it is never below freezing. That’s why fish, frogs, and other aquatic organisms can not only live but also bask in the relative warmth of the water while terrestrial animals are forced to survive in arctic cold.
This phenomenon makes ice fishing possible. The following blog was written by a friend who took her children fishing one cold morning.
Ice Fishing With Kids
Story and photos of people
by: Kelly Carr
“They weren’t budging. Even with the overhead light flipped on, gentle shoulder shakes, and promises of the fun they would have, my kids feigned sleep. It was 7:00 a.m. on New Year’s Eve, and it had been about a year since our last ice fishing attempt. This particular day was the sixth of a seven day stretch of the new shared-custody arrangement I had with my daughter and son’s father. As if putting them through a divorce wasn’t guilt-inducing enough, now I was trying to drag them out of the security of their warm beds. My mind drifted back to the present – if I could just get them going, I knew they would have a great time. So, I played the “Let’s Get Donuts On The Way” card. Sleeping forms shifted, eyelids sprung open. We were out the door in fifteen minutes, teeth unbrushed, bedhead tucked under stocking caps, and feet snuggled into a double layer of socks.”
Donut Bribery works!
“I’ve tried to raise kids who feel comfortable in nature. Driving to the park for the ice fishing clinic, the car filled with the smell of maple frosting. I mused silently upon some of our past outdoor adventures. We have been geocaching newbies, tramping at a roadside park, looking for a “small bison container”, which, as it turned out, was NOT a buffalo figurine after all! We’ve packed picnics into cemeteries, and talked oaks and stones and stories while we ate.
“A voice from behind jostled me back to the present. I passed a cappuccino to waiting hands in the backseat and then pointed up to a hillside, “Look – a cemetery!” My daughter protested, “Not today, Mom! Ugh!” You win some, you lose some.
The Outdoor Thing
“We wound through the park to the shore. After a quick presentation by a naturalist and distribution of fishing guides, bait and poles, we were set. My kids chose spots not too far away from their last year’s spots, got settled in on mats and sipped from their gas station cups while waiting for spring-bobbers to bob. The sun made things sparkle, and as I looked at them handling things and sitting in peace, I knew I had nothing to feel guilty about. Tummies full, bundled in warm layers, taking a chance on adventure, we were doing this “outdoors thing”. And we were finding our new “normal” while doing it. They each pulled two fish out of the water that morning before asking to go back to the car to listen to music. I consider that as success.
A warm bed is no match for the coolness of catching a panfish in winter.
“I had a few moments to myself out on the ice, to take it all in. Even when life changes, there are constants we can count on. The fish may not always bite, but while the sky is above and the earth (or ice) is below, I am a mother who loves her kids.”
After an unusually mild winter we were hardly surprised by the early onset of spring’s symphony. At Winding Pathways in Iowa it usually starts on clear cold February days when male cardinals begin their beeker beeker beeker call. They were close to their normal schedule this late winter. Then red winged blackbirds arrived fully two weeks early and added their voices to roadside ditches and wetlands.
On March 7 we heard the glorious sound that truly harkens spring – Chorus Frogs and Peepers! We were driving a dirt road through southern Iowa’s Shimek State Forest when Marion heard the voices of dozens of tiny frogs coming from a puddle the size of our car.
To naturalist Joseph Wood Krutch singing peepers heralded a true resurrection and marked the start of the warm season. Living in Connecticut he noted that they always began singing in the period of time in which Easter can fall. In other words between March 22 and April 25 .
That’s usually true in Iowa but this year they are earlier, much earlier.
Most people have heard peepers and chorus frogs but have never seen the tiny amphibians that sing with magnificent enthusiasm. The two species often live in the same places and can be easily told apart by their calls. Chorus frogs sound like a person running his finger along the teeth of a comb, while peepers make the “peep peep peep” calls that gives them their name. To hear recorded peepers and chorus frogs log in to Manitoba Frog and Toad Calls.
Frogs are far from the only animals that begin calling as winter transitions into spring. Migrating birds are already beginning to appear in yards, woodlands, and wetlands across America and often they are easier to hear than see. Some of the most melodic singers are the hardest birds to spot, and identifying them by sound is often more efficient than trying to spot a bird in thick brush. The Cornell Lab of Ornithology has excellent audios of bird calls for mobile apps.
Experienced birders (and froggers for that matter) use both ears and eyes to identify species. Like many birders we started out using printed bird guides to help us learn species. Only much later did we begin learning their calls. It’s been a rewarding hobby that has a cruel catch.
Each Rich would learn new bird calls when history caught up with him. Probably due to intense noise of heavy machine guns in Army training decades ago his ability to hear many sounds, particularly those of high pitches is fading. Marion can hear birdsong he can’t. He’s investigating hearing aids that should help him continue this fascinating means of identification. Stay tuned. He’ll report on hearing aids later.
USING THE MERLIN APP
For years we lugged around bird books that were either large and heavy or compact but limited in the information they provided. They were the best way to learn new species in the field.
That’s changed thanks to the Cornell Laboratory of Ornithology. We loaded their free Merlin App into our smart phones. It makes identifying 400 bird species a snap. At the touch of a few keys several photos of each species appear, a range map, and……best of all…… recorded sounds of each bird.
We still carry and refer to a paper bird book but the Merlin App has become our favorite field tool for identifying birds, especially by their call.
ABOUT THE LABORATORY OF ORNITHOLOGY
We joined the Lab a few years ago and love its colorful and informative magazine, LIVING BIRD, and the many bird tips posted on their websiteChorus Frogs. The Lab has been a leader in bird science for decades and they’ve helped us become better birders and gain new insights into the lives of these fascinating animals.