American Toads: A Few Wild Days, Then Solitary Again

My walks in Eliza Howell Park in the second half of April always include stops at the “Toad Breeding Pond.”

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When the weather gets to be just warm enough, male American Toads, having recently emerged from hibernation, head to the pond to call in females. I expect to hear/see them within a few days of April 20 (either before or after), usually beginning the day following a “warm” night rain.

On April 17 this year, there was a light rain at about 9 p.m. when the temperature was about 51 degrees, which counts as “warm,” and some toads were, in fact, present on April 18. The active breeding did not really begin until April 21, however, because the weather turned colder. The temperature did not get above 44 degrees on April 19 and April 20, too low for these cold-blooded animals to think about breeding.

The next three days (April 21, 22, 23) were warmer and filled with the loud calling of many voices and lots of activity, even in daytime.

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      Note: This toad photo and the next 3 below are courtesy of Margaret Weber

For 51 weeks in the year, toads are solitary and nocturnal (and they hibernate in burrows individually from November to April). During the brief breeding season, however, the sexually mature (2 or more years old) return to their natal pond, where the males compete in attempting to attract females by their calls.

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Some time is spent, of course, in considering the options or the competition.

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In mating, the male attaches himself to the back of the female and, while she lays eggs in the water (in strings), he releases sperm. Fertilization takes place outside the body.

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In 3 – 12 days (depending upon the temperature), the eggs hatch and the resulting tadpoles will spend up to 2 months in the pond before they complete metamorphosis and are able to leave the pond. Only a very small percentage survives the first year.

Last year egg-laying was later, followed by cold weather which delayed hatching. Then there was a May hot spell, leading to the drying up of the pond before the tadpoles were able to survive on land. (See “American Toad Breeding Pond: the 2018 Story,” July 23, 2018.)

So I was pleased to hear from another member of the Eliza Howell frog/toad survey team on April 21 this year that toads were calling in a different location in the park, an annually flooded area by the edge of the road, a spot that I am creatively identifying as “Toad Breeding Pond 2.” I don’t know how many years toads have been using this location, but they were present in large numbers this year and will probably continue to do so in the future.

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Typically, toads are loud and active in the breeding pond for 3-4 days. On April 24, all was quiet in both ponds. The adults have now gone their separate ways – till next April – catching insects mostly at night (the estimates are that one toad eats about 10,000 insects in the summer season), and hiding under leaves or logs in the daytime.

And I, instead of watching breeding adults, I hope to be watching tadpoles soon.

Spring Butterflies: Five of the Earliest

Butterfly season peaks in the summer, but a few begin to fly on warmer sunny days in the spring. Of the approximately 30 different species that I see each year in Eliza Howell Park, there are five that are always among the earliest to appear.

1.Mourning Cloak

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Photo by Margaret Weber

Butterflies have different ways of surviving the winter. Some few migrate; some overwinter as chrysalis and complete development in the spring; some hibernate as adults. Mourning Cloak is one that hibernates, under bark or a log, and emerges, as soon as the weather is warm enough, to feed on sap and rotten fruit and to get minerals and moisture from the soil. It looks much less colorful when the wings are folded.

2.Eastern Comma

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The butterflies that overwinter as adults locally are the earliest to take flight in the spring. Eastern Comma also hibernates and it, or Mourning Cloak, is usually the very first I see. Early in the spring, it feeds on sap and decaying organic material. Even later in the year, it is rarely seen on flowers.

The underwings are brown with a white mark in the general shape of a comma.

3.Spring Azure

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The Spring Azure is a blue butterfly that overwinters as chrysalis. It is very small and, when seen flying or with the wings open, the blue is striking. Whenever it allows me to take its picture, however, it has its wings closed and shows no blue at all. Early in the spring, the azure does not visit flowers, but later in the season it (or the subspecies Summer Azure) does. This picture was taken later in the year and is likely a Summer Azure.

4.Cabbage White

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One of only two non-native butterfly species that have become widespread in North America, Cabbage White also spends the winter as chrysalis. When the wings are open, the dark spots on the wings are evident as is the black on the tip. The name comes from the fact that Cabbage White caterpillars often feed on plants in the cabbage family.

5.Red Admiral

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The Red Admiral is one of the butterflies that migrate south for the winter. When the wings are folded, the insect is drab-looking, with only a small bit of orange showing. It too will take sap and decaying organic material until flowers bloom and then it is usually seen nectaring. The picture was taken in the summer.

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In July, when thousands of wildflowers are blooming in the fields of Eliza Howell, butterflies are numerous. During April, before the flowers bloom, there are only a few on some of the warmer sunny days. But for those of us eager to see butterflies again and to delight in the very fact that they are appearing again, the season begins.

A Hard Nut to Crack: The Red Squirrel’s Method

The Black Walnut is common in Eliza Howell Park and is very popular with squirrels, especially the Red Squirrel. In the fall, I love to watch these little “critters” as they energetically harvest the nuts from the trees (See “The Red Squirrel: A Different Walnut Hoarder,” September 25, 2018).

In the winter, I find clear indications that the hoarded walnuts are being consumed.

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Anyone who has attempted to crack open the hard-shelled black walnut to get the nutmeat knows how difficult it is to crack these shells open at all and how difficult it is to do so without shattering sharp pieces all over. It is impressive to see how neatly these shells have been opened and emptied.

Every nut is opened in almost exactly the same way. In this close-up, the marks left by the cutting teeth are clear.

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What might not be evident from the picture is that the squirrel opens each nut twice, once on each side. The next picture of the same nut, side 1 and side 2, is more evidence of how systematically the opening method is used.

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Not all squirrels open walnuts in the same way. A few of the open shells I have found look very different, opened by a different species. 

Here is an example.

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Though I have not had the opportunity yet to watch it in the act of cutting open a walnut, I am quite sure that it is the Red Squirrel, not a Fox Squirrel or a Gray Squirrel, that uses the method of opening the nuts from both sides.

The two-sided open shells are usually found together in a cluster and Red Squirrels hoard their nuts in a larder while Gray and Fox Squirrels scatter hoard. Further, these shells are found in the very same park locations where I often see Red Squirrels; the two locations I found clusters so far this winter are the two locations I checked because of earlier sightings of the animal.

The Red Squirrel (photo by Margaret Weber):

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The Red Squirrel is the smallest and least common of the tree squirrels in Eliza Howell Park, but, to me, its behavior is the most fascinating.